Visualizing the 2010 Census Challenge

Visualizing the 2010 Census Challenge

In March, we announced a media partnership with the Eyeo Festival, ­a new event drawing some of the world's most creative designers, coders, and artists together for three full days of unrepentant data viz indulgence. At around the same time, we watched as detailed results from the 2010 US Census began to roll in — a mountain of vital data almost begging to be visualized. Putting two and two together, Visualizing.org and Eyeo decided to give one lucky person the chance to visualize their way to the upcoming Festival. Their challenge? To create an interactive portrait of America by visualizing the 2010 Census data.

Why the 2010 Census? First, because all the data is public and freely available, an important part of our continued push for an open data culture. Second, we were intrigued by this diennial national headcount. How many of us, outside the one day every ten years when we dutifully fill out the survey, gives the census a second thought? Yet it forms the basis for a dizzying number of crucial government decisions, from how many seats each state will get in the House of Representatives to how some $400 billion will get divvied up amongst local communities for hospitals, schools, 9-1-1 services, and more. It's how the government forecasts how many of us will be grey-haired and eligible for Social Security and Medicare in coming years. And it's the one time when we pause to take stock of how 308.7 million Americans are shaping up as a society, in terms of age, sex, racial diversity, and income. With so much riding on the census, we thought giving it a dynamic, interactive incarnation would be effort well spent.

And we weren't disappointed. Today, we're thrilled to announce the winner of the 2010 Census Challenge, who will get a pass to Eyeo, plus travel and accommodations courtesy of GE:

Congratulations to Jan Willem Tulp for a big win!

Tulp's entry, aptly entitled "Ghost Counties" focused on homeownership data in the census, putting a unique spin on the subprime mortgage crisis.

The visualization analyzes the numbers of homes and vacant homes in proportion to the population of counties across the US. Each county is represented by two concentric circles: the larger one stands for the total number of homes, while the smaller one is the number of vacant homes. (In other words, the larger the ghostly halo effect, the better.)

What we loved about this design is that once you get the hang of its visual grammar, each state's portrait speaks volumes. The y-axis is simple enough — circles higher up on this axis are counties with more people. The trick is understanding the double role of the x-axis: running across the top, the x-axis indicates the number of vacant homes per person in a county. Across the bottom, it's almost — but not quite — the inverse: how many people there are for all homes in the county.

In Illinois, for instance, we see the hugely populous Cook County (home to Chicago) sitting far over to the left along the top axis, telling us there aren't many "ghost" houses here. Sounds good, right? But taken alone, this could also mean that there aren't a lot of houses here, period. Which could mean housing shortages, or even homelessness — a situation arguably scarier than a ghost town. And that's where the bottom x-axis comes in, with Cook County's curved tether landing smack in the center, indicating a nice, balanced ratio of people to homes.

That Tulp manages to convey all of the above, for each of more than 3,000 counties, in an uncluttered way is noteworthy. That he manages to wrap it into a visual aesthetic that evokes a touch of Calder is worthy of a small celebration. And no better place, we figure, than a visualizing festival in Minneapolis. Congrats, again, Jan Willem!

A big shout-out to all of you who entered the contest — we loved your work. And a special thanks to our judges from the Eyeo Festival team and the Visualizing.org team.

Got your own idea for a 2010 Census visualization? We're eager to keep the conversation going, so send us your visual take on the nationwide tally by uploading your work here.

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